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empathy is alive and well

I am reading a book about the formation of empathy in kids. It is talking a lot about the limbic system, and mirror neurons, some of it I knew already, but much is new.

The book talks about the feedback loop that happens when we hold or feed a baby, how they light up when we come to answer a cry, and we light up in return when we take care of them. I remember it so well-- even when I was half crazy with fatigue, how my kids would wiggle all over when I appeared. This is the beginning, according to the book, of our formation into creatures who can trust the outside world, and have real relationships. If things are askew at the light up and wiggle stage, there may be trouble later.

The book says that when we see something happen to another, something hurtful or joyful, we have a response in our physical selves, the mirror neurons fire to allow us to feel it also. We have known this since long before brain scans of course. Here is a quote from the 18th century:

'By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensation, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.'

Oddly that is Adam Smith, the economist. And he has it just right. The mirror neurons do give us the feelings of another, and they are indeed 'weaker in degree.' (Don't you just love how the enlightenment people were so unafraid to scatter their learning wide? A little poetry, a little math, a little flower picking, some metallurgy, not like now when we are limited by what we think we are.)

And it reminds me-- just after Hazel died I had an interaction with three little girls who live nearby. They were perhaps nine years old. I was outside and they came and asked after her. One came closer than the others, the speaker for them all. She had a plastic hula-hoop. I answered quietly that when we took her in for the broken leg she had turned out to be much much sicker than we knew, and that was why her bones broke, and that she had died. The little girls face wrinkled.

"She died?"

"Yes," I said

"So... She is all the way dead?"


And the child looked at me. She put her hand on her chest where her heart is, over her flat little girl chest.

"I feel your pain inside me as if it were my own," she said.

Wow. That is what the book is on about.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 16th, 2015 07:45 pm (UTC)
What a bright little girl, to be able to put her feeling into words!! I tried,when raising my 7 kids, to help them name their feelings and to express them (both the 'good' and the 'bad' ones) It seems to be an area that some parents neglect, especially with their sons. Being able to name and express your own feelings leads to better understanding (and feeling) other people's feelings. Especially in marriage, being able to do this is a way to grow closer and more 'in tune' with your partner.
Oct. 19th, 2015 09:02 pm (UTC)
Oh my what a perceptive little girl! "All the way dead?" That's heart breaking. You live among good people.

Empathy is fascinating. I was thinking just the other day about how we can empathise so strongly with fictional characters. How is it that marks on a page can provoke such a strong physical response in us? It's a kind of magic that never ceases to amaze me.
Oct. 19th, 2015 10:02 pm (UTC)
I think that book was what led me to the Cleveland fic. I was thinking about holding babies. Funny about Adam Smith. I don't know much at all about him, but he would not have been my first guess for someone thinking deeply about empathy.

And now I am thinking also about Dr Hornblower, all alone with a hungry baby, trying to rig up some sort of bottle while he figured out what to do with the shreds of his life.( I think he eventually found a wet-nurse.)

And I am thinking of Archie's mom, in her grand house, in her shabby chair.

Magic, as you say.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )